BookBrowse Reviews The Opium Prince by Jasmine Aimaq

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The Opium Prince

by Jasmine Aimaq

The Opium Prince by Jasmine Aimaq X
The Opium Prince by Jasmine Aimaq
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  • First Published:
    Dec 2020, 384 pages

    Paperback:
    Jan 2022, 384 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Daniela Schofield
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A fast-paced story of political intrigue, foreign influence and the power of opium in revolutionary Afghanistan.

Jasmine Aimaq's debut novel The Opium Prince is an engrossing narrative that depicts the intricacies and entanglements of political struggles in late-1970s Afghanistan. The novel's central character is Daniel Abdullah Sajadi, the newly appointed director of the United States Against the Drug Economy (USADE), an agency tasked with combating the cultivation of opium in Afghanistan. Daniel, the son of an American mother and a late Afghan war hero, embodies the tensions between Afghan politics and US interests that frame the book.

The story opens with Daniel driving from Kabul to Herat for an anniversary getaway with his American wife Rebecca. Their plans are quickly derailed when Daniel hits and fatally injures a young girl named Telaya. This incident sparks a series of events during which Daniel becomes embroiled in battles for power as he is haunted by his role in Telaya's death, an occurrence that adds to an inner turmoil also fed by the lingering specter of his powerful father. In the meantime, he struggles to navigate the complexity of his position as an employee of the American government and a member of Afghanistan's wealthy elite while Soviet-backed communist factions begin to threaten the sitting Afghan regime and the relationship between the US and Afghanistan becomes increasingly acrimonious. As USADE director, Daniel pushes a mandate to replace fields of opium-yielding poppies with food crops, and finds himself both in conflict with and reliant upon Taj Maleki, a charismatic opium khan who came to his assistance in the aftermath of the accident that killed Telaya.

Aimaq fictionalizes America's entanglement in Afghanistan with reference or allusion to historical events and players. She does so in a manner that depicts the stark inequality and poverty in the country as well as the politically expedient nature of US foreign policy. One exchange between Daniel and Taj captures the tension between the countries as they debate the morality of growing poppies to harvest for opium. Daniel argues that opium leads to incapacitating levels of addiction and should be replaced by food crops that can feed poor rural communities. Taj counters that opium sales are far more profitable than the alternative crops promoted by the American government, resulting in better livelihoods for the poppy farmers, and that the decision of how the land is used should be up to those who work it:

"Leave our land alone," Taj said. "It isn't yours. It belongs to the poppies and those who pick them."

Throughout most of the book, Aimaq employs a third-person point of view that provides insight into the duality of Daniel's American and Afghani perspectives. This approach is also effective in relating the unspoken sentiments and past experiences that give depth to the characters and infuse their relationships with dramatic tension. While this perspective works well in the body of the novel, however, the first-person voice used in the prologue and epilogue are discordant with the rest of the book. The result is a story bookended by somewhat jarring transitions that distract from the overall narrative.

Still, most of the plot is served well by the author's approach, through which she explores the brewing tensions in Afghanistan's internal political factions and how these are exacerbated by foreign influence. Contrasts between classes, political allegiances and wealth are drawn throughout. Following the car accident in the opening scene, Daniel enters Telaya's nomadic community, where his observations highlight dichotomies between Afghanistan and the US: "Sitting cross-legged on a rug speckled with sand, girls who would be children in America but are women here sew tea leaves into pouches." Comparison between the two nations is made often and explicitly throughout the book, linking not only to their political and military history but also to Daniel's internal contradictions:

In America, his friends sometimes used the phrase "becoming a statistic" like it was something to be avoided. They complained about the government turning them into a number. What a luxury that would have been for Telaya, to find her name on a ledger, to be a statistic.

While Daniel finds himself on what initially seems to be the privileged sides of the various conflicts and differences in the country – a wealthy son of a famous Afghan hero and gemstone magnate as well as an American – this privilege becomes increasingly tenuous as the story progresses.

The Opium Prince is a fast-paced novel, with the drama of both political events and relationships between characters propelling the plot. While not a traditional thriller, it provides plenty of action and intrigue that keeps the reader wanting more.

Reviewed by Daniela Schofield

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in February 2021, and has been updated for the January 2022 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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